The 20 Greatest Chicago Blues Records
From Big Boss Man to Smokestack Lightnin’, these are the stories of the landmark records that electrified the blues and put Chicago on the map.
This article first appeared in The Blues #5, February 2013.
Baby Face Leroy Trio – Rollin' And Tumblin'
With its polyphonic moaning and humming and its deliriously repetitive riffs, this recording has been described by some critics and scholars as a throwback to the ring shouts enacted by black slaves as rituals of connectedness and celebration.
Whether you accept the comparison or not, it is an extraordinary performance to find on a record made not by dedicated folklorists, but for a label run by a seasoned commercial record distributor.
Sunnyland Slim, who played with all these guys, claimed that he reintroduced this old song, first recorded in the 20s, to the Chicago crowd. For six minutes back in 1950, the Windy City studio shook to the glorious sound of Muddy Waters’ slide guitar, Little Walter’s harmonica and Leroy Foster’s busy drumming.
What appeared on the 78 under the moniker Part 1 has no words at all, just choruses of meaningless vocal sound. On Part 2, Leroy sings three verses, while Muddy and Walter (and, to my ears, a third voice) contribute half-lines, shouts or words of encouragement. Is this music or is it organised noise? (Or are they all the same thing?)
At the time of the recording, in January 1950, Muddy was signed to Chess, and the Chess brothers had him make it again, without Leroy and Walter, to kill the earlier version – which it did: Parkway 501 is a $3,000 rarity.
The song has had a curious afterlife, with some reissues mis-numbering the sides, so the singing comes in Part 1 and the moaning in Part 2, and with edits. In 2012, however, blues musician and collector Big Joe Louis released the original masters on a 45 (still available), correctly numbered and with edits and fades removed, so that anyone with a turntable can at last hear this coruscating music as it was originally performed. (TR)
Muddy Waters – Hoochie Coochie Man
McKinley Morganfield, also known as Muddy Waters, was inspired to learn guitar as a teenager in Mississippi after seeing Clarksdale Delta blues pioneer Son House play bottleneck slide.
By 1947, Waters found himself in Chicago, recording for Leonard and Phil Chess’s Aristocrat Records, which was soon to be rechristened Chess Records and take its place in history. His 1948 single, I Feel Going Home / I Can’t Be Satisfied, a spectral recording featuring only his vocals and electric slide guitar, backed by Ernest 'Big' Crawford’s upright bass, put Waters and the nascent label on the map.
The Chess brothers wanted Waters to stick to this updated Mississippi Delta sound, but Muddy began developing a new Chicago blues during his live performances, abetted by a stellar electric band that included Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica and Jimmy Rogers on guitar. When allowed to record in this style, Waters changed the blues forever and became one of its greatest stars.
On January 7, 1954, Waters recorded his signature tune, Hoochie Coochie Man, with Jacobs and Rogers alongside Otis Spann on piano, the song’s writer Willie Dixon on bass and Fred Below on drums.
Dixon had originally brought the song to Waters’ regular gig at the Zanzibar club, approaching him in the men’s room between sets. Waters married Dixon’s boastful voodoo lyrics to a stop time rhythm – in which several joined beats pause to allow the vocals to be sung – that gave it a swaggering masculine sound.
When he delivered the lyrics, the song seemed to give him a primordial, hypnotic power. ‘I got a black cat bone / I got a mojo too / I got a John the Conquerer root / I got to mess with you,’ he sang, most lasciviously, before declaring ‘I’m the Hoochie Coochie Man!’.
He debuted the song at the Zanzibar that night; the crowd went wild and, when released as a single on Chess, the song became Muddy’s biggest hit, reaching the US R&B number 3 spot and establishing his new urban blues group sound. (JH)
Howlin' Wolf – Smokestack Lightnin'
Chester Burnett cut an imposing figure in the Chicago blues clubs of the 50s, being 6ft 3in tall, weighing 275lbs and possessing one of the most extraordinary voices in music – a rasping, ferocious, yet haunting and soulful howl that had earned him the name Howlin’ Wolf.
The self-penned Smokestack Lightnin’ has the anguished Wolf asking his baby to tell him where she spent the previous night, over an atmospheric one-chord backing. Inspired by watching steam-powered trains, the lightnin’ refers to the sparks visible from their smokestacks (chimneys) at night.
The version of the song Wolf recorded for Chess Records in January 1956 became the definitive one, with its distinctive guitar riff propelling it to No.11 on the US Billboard R&B chart, but Wolf had previously recorded the song as Crying At Daybreak in West Memphis for RPM Records in 1951. The song’s origins went back further still to the 1930s, when he played around the Delta with Charley Patton, the lyrics borrowing heavily from the Mississippi Sheiks’ Stop And Listen Blues from 1930, which includes the lines, ‘A-ah, smokestack lightnin’, that bell shine like gold, now don’t you hear me talkin’…’ On the Chess recording Wolf is backed by guitarists Hubert Sumlin and Willie Johnson, bassist Willie Dixon, pianist Hosea Lee Kennard and drummer Earl Phillips, with Sumlin claiming authorship of the famous riff.
The Yardbirds featuring a young Eric Clapton are among the many groups to have since covered Smokestack Lightnin’, while the guttural vocals of Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits were clearly influenced by the Wolf’s growl. (JH)
Little Walter – Juke
Marion Walter Jacobs, known professionally as Little Walter, revolutionised blues harmonica playing as surely as Jimi Hendrix revolutionised electric guitar.
Jacobs was born in Louisiana in 1930 but, after leaving school aged only 12, lived the life of an itinerant hobo drifting and busking through New Orleans, West Helena, Memphis and St. Louis, before settling in Chicago in the mid 1940s, just after the Second World War.
He was recording by 1947, but made his first real impact when playing the Zanzibar club, as a member of Muddy Waters’ band. In the big city you had to be loud to be heard, and, accordingly, Jacobs updated his harmonica for the newly developing urban blues by opting to run it through a microphone cupped in his hand, plugged into an amplifier. Jacobs also pioneered the use of echo and electronic distortion, such innovations taking the harmonica to new artistic heights and unprecedented popularity.
Leonard Chess started allowing Jacobs to appear on Waters’ Chess label recordings from 1950 onwards, and he blew harp on Muddy hits such as Louisiana Blues, but wouldn’t introduce his new sound until a Muddy Waters session on July 11, 1951, when he plugged his harp microphone into a guitar amplifier and had the engineer mic that for She Moves Me and Still A Fool.
On May 12 1952, the band – featuring Waters and Jimmy Rogers on guitars and Elga Edmonds on drums, led by Jacobs’ extraordinary jazzy, emotive playing that made his amplified harmonica sound like a saxophone – recorded a bold, swinging instrumental shuffle boogie.
Though the track was credited to Jacobs, who named it Your Cat Will Play, Rogers believed it to be adapted from Sunnyland Slim’s Get Up The Stairs Mademoiselle and Snooky Pryor and Moody Jones’ Snooky And Moody’s Boogie. Somebody (probably Leonard Chess) renamed the instrumental Juke when issued in July on Chess Records subsidiary Checker as Jacobs’ solo debut with the group, dubbed Little Walter and his Night Cats.
It proved a runaway success, reaching No.1 in the Billboard R&B chart, unprecedented for a harmonica instrumental. Jacobs left to form his own band while on tour in Shreveport, though he would continue to accompany Waters on many of his studio recordings. The popularity of Juke was such that every blues band now had to have a harp player. (JH)
Sonny Boy Williamson – Don't Start Me Talkin'
Aleck 'Rice' Miller, the second Sonny Boy Williamson, joined the Jackson, Mississippi based Trumpet Records in 1951. He recorded a string of blues classics there, including Nine Below Zero and Eyesight To The Blind that are still revered today.
But it was after moving to Chess Records subsidiary Checker in 1955 that he achieved his greatest success, establishing himself as a blues star. On August 12, Miller entered a Chicago studio with Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers on guitars, bassist Willie Dixon, pianist Otis Spann and drummer Fred Below, and cut the magnificent, wry Don’t Start Me Talkin’.
This raw stomper features Williamson warning the neighbourhood gossips that he is going to tell everything he knows, to stop their ‘signifyin’. Delivered over a stop time rhythm interspersed with wild, exuberant harp blowing that would influence Junior Wells and James Cotton, the song climbed to No.3 in the Billboard R&B chart. (JH)
Jimmy Reed – Big Boss Man
In the 1950s the hypnotic grooves of Jimmy Reed’s recordings took him to heights in the charts that few blues artists could reach, and none as often as he did. You Don’t Have To Go, Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby, Honest I Do, Take Out Some Insurance, Baby What You Want Me To Do. . . It was a rich and rewarding furrow of the blues field, and Reed ploughed, sowed and reaped it for years.
By 1960, though, the harvests seemed more meagre. The slow-boogie guitars, clip-clopping drums and high-register harmonica were still reliable tools, but too often used on mediocre songs. Then, at a session for Vee-Jay on March 29, 1960, Reed got his groove back.
'Big boss man, can’t you hear me when I call? You know you ain’t so big – you just tall, that’s all.’ Though for years a city-dweller, Reed suddenly reached back into his past and plucked out a memory of being a field hand for Mr Charlie, 'working round the clock’.
Anyone of Reed’s generation (he was 34) and the one before it – and some of the next too – would have known exactly what he was talking about in those lyrics, would have remembered what it was like to toil, footsore, aching-shouldered and with bleeding fingers, through long, hot days in a Mississippi or Arkansas cotton field.
Actually, in 1960, many of them would still have been doing that work. Big Boss Man was not a historical memoir, it was a message from a man who had escaped that life but had not forgotten it, and was letting the ones still imprisoned by it know that they were not forgotten either.
But a piece of music is seldom just one thing, and Big Boss Man was not only a sardonic postcard to a home Reed would’ve preferred to leave behind him: it was Jimmy Reed doing what he always and inimitably did, but with fresh vigour. Jangling descending phrases on harmonica and guitars precipitate the listener into the story.
The rhythm is led by Earl Phillips’ slapping drums and underpinned by a couple of rhythm guitarists, chugging quietly in the middle distance like a couple of John Deere tractors. Just off mic, Reed’s wife Mary sings quietly along. Everything coheres to make a unique and unforgettable record. (TR)
John Lee Hooker – Dimples
For British blues fans in the 60s, Dimples was a torch-bearing record – a genuine blues by an unreconstructed blues artist that took up a 10-week residence in the pop chart and almost made the Top 20.
Boogie Chillen and Boom Boom are the numbers by Hooker that have been elected to The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll, but there’s a case to be made that Dimples did more to place Hooker in the international musical consciousness, at a time when it mattered. That was in 1964, when Dimples was plucked out of the Vee-Jay catalogue by its British licensee, Stateside, to exploit an artist who, since appearing with the 1962 American Folk Blues Festival, was growing in recognition in Europe.
The recording had been made eight years earlier, in Chicago on March 27, 1956, at Hooker’s second session for Vee-Jay. “A 12-bar blues,” in the words of historian Ted Gioia, “with a few beats amputated, imparting a lopsided feeling that gave the song its odd appeal.”
Hooker had years of record-making behind him, but much of it had been in guitar-based settings. With his new label, he concentrated on making band music, and the cooler, more organised sound gave him a fresh accessibility. Not that Hooker was ever a man to settle into one way of doing things: a few years on, he would remake himself into an acoustic “folk blues” version of himself; his later Vee-Jay work would often be with horn sections and vocal groups, and his Bluesway albums of the 70s would be a series of encounters with musicians of quite different backgrounds, like Steve Miller or Van Morrison. Not to mention The Healer, 1989’s Grammy-winning late-career all-star collaborative album, which partnered John Lee with such blues and rock luminaries as Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, Robert Cray and George Thorogood.
Some of these experiments masked the individuality at the heart of John Lee Hooker. The insinuating groove and chant-along lyrics of Dimples present him as he will be remembered: as a master magician of the black art of the blues. (TR)
Eddie Boyd – Five Long Years
Boyd's opening piano chords toll away like foreboding warning bells. It’s as if they’re calling out to you, telling you: “This is going to be a story that’s hard to hear.” Then he begins: ‘If you ever been mistreated, well, you know just what I’m talking about . . . I worked five long years for one woman, then she had the nerve to put me out.'
He protests that he worked hard at an unpleasant job, brought home his pay – in short, treated his woman way better than the norm in blues relationships – and this is his reward. Well, he won’t make that mistake again.‘The next woman I marry, she’s got to work and bring me some gold…'
In the background tenor saxophonist Ernest Cotton snorts and snarls his agreement, like a buddy, saying, “That’s right, man. You tell her. Tell everybody. That’s the way these women do.” Recorded in Chicago for J. O. B. on June 19, 1952, Five Long Years has lived through six decades, an imperishable standard of the blues repertoire. (TR)
Otis Rush – So Many Roads
Otis Rush has had a switchback career. He burst over Chicago in the late 50s, a passionate voice redefining blues emotion. Willie Dixon, who produced him for Cobra, told label-owner Eli Toscano, “One day, somebody’s gonna play you a blues that’s gonna hit you hard.”
No, said Toscano, no blues could have that effect on him. So they recorded I Can’t Quit You Baby.
“That must be the first time I ever saw anybody’s hair stand straight up on their head,” Dixon remembered. “Somebody said, ‘What’s the matter, Eli?’, and he was crying.”
After that, Rush’s trajectory flattened, and his career trajectory was bedevilled by contractual and personal problems. But then, in January 1960, he recorded a momentous new song, So Many Roads, So Many Trains at Chess. Rush was still riding his Cobra high, and this song of desertion and uncertainty had all that intensity of feeling, and a slashing guitar solo besides, underscored by Bob Neely’s tenor moans and Lafayette Leake’s stabbing piano. It would be years before Rush had the opportunity to equal it. (TR)
Buddy Guy – First Time I Met The Blues
If a novelist were to be penning the story of his life, dramatic licence would demand that, in his version of the bluesman’s biography he make First Time I Met The Blues the 23-year-old Buddy Guy’s debut recording.
The title demands and suggests a narrative: one where the new kid on the block ends up slaying the old-timers with his talent, as Robert Johnson is supposed to have done with Son House and Willie Brown. In fact the song came at the end of a session, for Chess Records on March 2, 1960, and Guy had been in a studio two or three times before that for other companies.
Still, this was Buddy’s big break, and he took it with a passion that is still riveting, a full half-century on. ‘The first time I met the blues,’ he sings, ‘don’t you know I was walking down through the wood… The blues got after me – blues, you know you ran me from tree to tree…'
It’s a nightmare vision, the blues embodied, like the entity in M R James’s ghost story Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad, as a frightful chasing thing, and the way Guy tells the tale, breaking into frantic yells and screams, twists the horror further and further, almost to breaking point. The setting is appropriately ominous, the rolling thunder of the sax section (two tenors and a baritone) pierced by lightning flashes of guitar.
In the background you can hear that grand old man of early blues piano, Little Brother Montgomery – an incongruous figure in this fast company, you might think, but actually not, for the song was originally of his making, and Guy follows his words dutifully. But in the time that passed between the meeting described in Little Brother’s sober, reflective recording of 1936, and Guy’s ghastly encounter a generation later, history had redefined the boundaries of horror. The blues-haunted woods evoked in the song are no longer just the pines and wild oaks of the American South, but also the black forests around Treblinka. (TR)
Jimmy Rogers – That's All Right
It could be argued that blues fans have sometimes taken Jimmy Rogers for granted, seeing the journeyman singer, guitarist and harp-player as no more than an efficient First Officer to Muddy’s Captain, forever standing loyally by his side as they together guided the SS Chicago Blues through the choppy seas of the club and record business.
Certainly, Rogers was a vital collaborator in creating the sound of the early Muddy Waters Blues Band, perhaps the most influential model in late 20th century blues. But anyone who took the trouble to listen to what Rogers was doing during this era under his own name would realise that consigning him to the role of right-hand man – Ginger to Muddy’s Biggles, if you will – was doing Jimmy something of a serious injustice.
Rogers’ remarkable clutch of Chess recordings of the early 50s – including such tracks as Goin’ Away Baby, The World Is In A Tangle, Money, Marbles And Chalk, Back Door Friend, You’re The One and many more – are quintessential Chicago blues of their time, helping to coin a blueprint that would prove hardy over the decades: concise, catchy, made by a musician who never put a note or an accent anywhere but where it should be.
The first in this sequence, originally cut on August 15, 1950, was That’s All Right. The recording recomposed an idea originally conjured by Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup, replacing the original version’s jauntiness with quiet resignation: ‘That’s all right… I know you don’t love me no more, but that’s all right…’ So universal a theme could not help but become a standard.
But it is worth going back to the original, not just for Rogers’ stoic delivery but for the firm handwriting of his guitar, the magisterial bass line of Big Crawford, and the eloquence of Little Walter, who blows almost without a break through the entire song. (TR)
Junior Wells – Messin' With The Kid
Messin' With The Kid lasts about two and a quarter minutes. You’d be forgiven for finding that hard to believe, since so much is happening in it: Earl Hooker’s guitar solo, zooming up and out of the mix like a demented bee; the blurting tenor and baritone of those stalwarts of the Chicago sax scene, Jarrett Gibson and Donald Hankins; brilliantly fitting Latin percussion by Fred Below. And finally, rising above it all, Junior Wells’ struttin’-my-stuff vocal, all feisty and pugnacious.
Like Eddie Boyd, Wells feels misused: his woman spends his money ‘like it comes as a gift / I work for my money on an eight-hour shift’. Each mistreatment is underlined with the outraged refrain: ‘Oh, Lord! Look at what you did! You can call it what you wanna – but I call it messin’ with the kid.’
It all came together for Junior Wells at a session for Mel London’s Chief label on October 17 of that most spectacular year for Chicago blues recording, 1960. (Check out the other epochal recordings by artists such as Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Elmore James mentioned throughout this feature which were cut during this vintage year for blues from the windy city). Wells, then 25 years old, had been on Chief for three years and had delivered a strong seller in 1959 by the name of Little By Little, backed by a blistering little number by the name of Come On In This House.
Earlier, Wells had laid down a series of sides for States, which announced him as perhaps the most talented teenager in town, and gave him the chance to play harmonica with Muddy Waters. But Messin’ With The Kid revealed a more confident performer, one with moves that would extricate him from the blues pigeonhole – he was already distancing himself from his down-home past by dropping the harmonica from his records – and place him on larger stages. He later found those larger stages, on an international scale, during the 70s when he found himself playing with Buddy Guy as support to The Rolling Stones. (TR)
Otis Spann – Looks Like Twins
As the undisputed heavyweight champ of post-war Chicago blues piano, Otis Spann is best remembered as a member of Muddy Waters' band from 1952 to 1969.
During that golden period, he also recorded sessions with just about anyone that was worth a damn in Chicago, including Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy and Bo Diddley. His solitary Chess Records 45,It Must Have Been The Devil (released in 1954) is notable not least for the fact that it featured a young BB King on guitar. He also took time to cut music with young, up-and-coming English disciples like ex-Bluesbreakers guitarists Eric Clapton and Peter Green.
In August 1960, the pianist released Otis Spann Is The Blues (Candid 9001), the first in a series of essential albums that saw him backed by the likes of guitarist Robert Lockwood Jr, harmonica legend James Cotton, and his friend (and day job) Muddy Waters. Each record in this series of releases proved beyond doubt that Spann had the goods as a vocalist as well as a musician.
Looks Like Twins, a smouldering blues fuelled by Spann’s trademark fluttering 88s, is featured on his The Bottom Of The Blues album (Bluesway 6013), which he recorded in New York City on November 20, 1967. While his wife Lucille takes the lead vocal on a number of the album’s tracks, including the intriguingly titled Diving Duck, it’s Otis who wrings every last drop of drama and emotion from the seething Looks Like Twins. Backing him up on the session was harp player George ‘Mojo’ Buford, former Magic Sam guitarist Luther ‘Guitar Junior’ Johnson, guitarist Sammy Lawhorn, drummer SP Leary, bassist Lawrence ‘Little Sonny’ Wimberly and, once again, Muddy Waters, adding electric guitar and occasional vocals.
As fine a supporting artist he’d proven himself so many countless times to be, Otis saw that he had a chance to make it as a solo performer, and he left Waters' band to pursue that aim in 1969. Sadly, he died the following year after losing his fight with cancer. (EM)
Elmore James – The Sun Is Shining
Weather is never just weather when it appears in the grand, celestial blues songbook. Winds howl in derision as they bear lovers away, while rain mimics the tears of the bereaved. And so it was for Elmore James back in 1960: the sun might have been shining, but it’s raining in his heart.
A year or so later Slim Harpo would take that phrase into the charts, but his Rainin’ In My Heart was a maudlin swamp-pop ballad, its self-pity tuned to the experience of teenagers. James, on the other hand, was a bluesman of tougher fibre, an adult addressing adult pain, and his The Sun Is Shining finds him at his weightiest, telling his story with the deliberation, the pauses, the wrenched-out cries of a preacher, over the congregational ‘oh, yeah’s of pianist Johnny Jones and tenor player JT Brown, and the ever-sturdy bass lines of Homesick James.
At this point in April 1960, Elmore James had nearly a decade of record-making behind him, an astonishing sequence of rugged down-home blues sides for Flair, Meteor and Chief. A few months beforehand, he had logged a first tremendous session for Bobby Robinson’s Fire label, including The Sky Is Crying (‘look at the tears rollin’ down the street’).
The Sun Is Shining was fashioned to the same template, but the warmer, closer sound of the Chess studio invests the new song with greater concentration and intensity. The sound of this group, this song, seems like it can barely be contained within the grooves of a 45, and the singer’s dilemma cannot be resolved in the three minutes or less of a single made for jukeboxes and radio play.
Stranded, for no reason he can see, by a woman who left him that morning and didn’t even say goodbye, Elmore stands alone in the pitiless sun with nothing more to say, and after its three verses of disbelief and despair, the song ends in a churning instrumental fade, leaving the listener suspended in a dark, foreboding place. It made for a disquieting masterpiece. (TR)
Koko Taylor – Wang Dang Doodle
Koko Taylor, 'The Queen Of The Blues’, was born Cora Walton in Shelby County, Tennessee in 1928 to a poor sharecropper family that raised cotton, corn and peas.
Nicknamed ‘Little Koko’ for her love of chocolate, she moved to Chicago in the 50s with her future husband Robert ‘Pops’ Taylor, where she cleaned houses by day and sang in blues clubs by night. She met Willie Dixon in 1962, and by 1964 had signed to Chess Records’ Checker label. On December 7, 1965 she recorded Wang Dang Doodle, the bluesy strut that would make her name, with Dixon on second vocal, guitarists Buddy Guy and Johnny Williams, pianist Lafayette Leake, bassist Jack Myers, drummer Fred Below and saxophonist Gene Barge.
Composed by Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf had recorded the song in 1960, but Taylor’s gritty rendition – led by her powerful yell – became the definitive one, reaching No.4 in the R&B charts in early 1966. (JH)
Bo Diddley – You Don't Love Me (You Don't Care)
Ellas McDaniel, soon to be better known as Bo Diddley, recorded four songs during his first sessions for Chess Records on March 2-3 1955. His band comprised Billy Boy Arnold on harmonica, Clifton James on drums and Jerome Green on maracas, with Muddy Water’s pianist Otis Spann and Chess house bassist Willie Dixon augmenting the line-up. Had he never recorded again he would still have created three genuine classics that would establish his legend, and become rhythm and blues standards.
Two became his hit debut single Bo Diddley / I’m A Man, released that same year. The bluesy You Don’t Love Me (You Don’t Care) was just as good, but remained unreleased until Bo’s second album, Go Bo Diddley, in 1959. As Diddley chants the forlorn lyrics over a hypnotic, repetitious beat and Green shakes for all his might close to the mic, Arnold’s eerie Sonny Boy Williamson-esque wailing harmonica dominates and Spann contributes a raucous boogie piano solo. (JH)
Hound Dog Taylor – Give Me Back My Wig
Few sounds in the blues are as infectious as the fuzzed-out mayhem Theodore Roosevelt ‘Hound Dog’ Taylor conjured up on his debut album for the now-legendary Alligator Records in 1971. Hound Dog Taylor And The HouseRockers was the first release by Alligator Records for one simple reason: the label was founded in the 11-fingered slide guitar genius’ honour.
After catching Hound’s show at Florence’s Lounge, a club located on Chicago’s South Side, in 1970, Delmark Records shipping clerk Bruce Iglauer recommended that his label sign Taylor and his band.
Undeterred, Iglauer pulled the trigger on his own small label, floated by a $2,500 inheritance, and Alligator Records was hatched. The album was recorded and produced by Iglauer, Wes Race and the Hound Dog himself over the course of two days at Sound Studios in Chicago. The lean, minimal line-up numbered three: Hound Dog Taylor on lead guitar and vocals, Brewer Phillips on guitar and Ted Harvey on drums.
One of eight Dog-penned tracks on the 12-cut album, Give Me Back My Wig became a favourite of Stevie Ray Vaughan, who recorded a version during the sessions for his 1984 Couldn’t Stand The Weather album.
Of course, Dog’s distinctive, signature bass-less sound on Give Me Back My Wig – and the album it resides on – was lifted wholesale by bands such as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, White Stripes and The Black Keys 30-odd years later. (EM)
Paul Butterfield Blues Band – Born In Chicago
Written by Paul Butterfield’s blues fanatic friend Nick Gravenites, aka Nick The Greek, Born In Chicago was singer/ harmonica player Butterfield’s validating statement, a declaration that he was the real deal from the mean streets of Chicago. The song opens with Butterfield’s gritty blues shouting vocal: ‘I was born in Chicago in 1941 / Well my father told me “Son you had better get a gun.”’
Its powerful attack challenges anyone who thinks that because he and guitarists Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield and organist Mark Naftalin are white, they can’t play urban blues as tough as Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. Reinforcing their blues credentials, the band’s rhythm section were two former members of the Wolf’s band, bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay.
Butterfield’s wailing harmonica showed the influence of Little Walter and Junior Wells, but didn’t pale in comparison, while Mike Bloomfield’s soloing announced a new guitar hero.
Born In Chicago is the opening track on The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s superb 1965 self-titled debut, which helped instigate the late 60s blues boom. An earlier version of Born In Chicago had appeared on the Elektra sampler Folk Song 65 and within a month it sold 60,000 copies because of the song’s inclusion.
In July, Butterfield’s band rang the changes backing Bob Dylan at his infamous Newport Folk Festival appearance when he went electric and shocked the folk crowd; at the same festival the Butterfield Band themselves caused an uproar when they played a fully electric set at Alan Lomax’s blues workshop. (EM)
Magic Sam – My Love Will Never Die
Features on Magic Sam’s 1967 long-player West Side Soul – a serious contender for the title of greatest Chicago blues album of all time – My Love Will Never Die is a hair-raising mix of reverberated guitar stabs, blasts of falsetto vocal, and extreme dynamics.
Even judged alongside the album’s thrilling run through of Robert Johnson’s Sweet Home Chicago, My Love Will Never Die is an undeniably extraordinary performance… dramatic as hell. No one, it seems, played electric blues quite like Samuel ‘Magic Sam’ Gene Maghett.
The sessions for West Side Soul took place on July 12 and October 25, 1967, engineered by Stu Black at Sound Studios in Chicago, the same engineer and studio later involved in the cutting of the first Hound Dog Taylor And The HouseRockers album released by Alligator Records in 1971.
In addition to Magic Sam on vocals and guitar, the studio line-up for these fateful sessions included seasoned sidemen, guitarist Mighty Joe Young, pianist Stockholm Slim, bassists Earnest Johnson and Mark Thompson and drummers Odie Payne and Odie Payne III.
Sam’s career took off, and was on the rise in the wake of the album’s release. He went on to record his final album, Black Magic (Delmark, 1968) before succumbing to a heart attack in 1969, at the painfully young age of 32. West Side Soul is his legacy – an album every blues fan should own – while My Love Will Never Die is a wake-up call for any guitarist who thinks they’ve got this blues thing licked. (EM)
Son Seals – Four Full Seasons Of Love
When Frank 'Son' Seals turned up to Curtom Studios in Chicago in 1976 to record his second album for the Alligator label, he was a changed man.
In the three years that separated the recording sessions for Midnight Son and his debut 1973 Alligator release, The Son Seals Blues Band, Seals had played just about every dive, college campus and festival in the US.
The Son Seals Blues Band is a document of exactly where Seals was at in the early 70s; it has the unmistakable funk of a Southern upbringing and countless nights spent learning his trade in juke joints and dives.
The relentless locomotive that is Four Full Seasons Of Love typifies the muscular new approach Seals brought back from the road and put to work on Midnight Son. Some commentators have described the album as a much more polished affair than its predecessor. Well, okay… The addition of a small but dynamic horn section gives songs like Four Full Seasons Of Love and Telephone Angel a more uptown feel, but there’s far too much Southern grit in Seal’s guitar playing and bellowing vocal delivery for any gloss finish to stick.
Seal was joined for the recording of the album by rhythm guitarist Steve Plair, ivory tinkler Alberto Gianquinto, drummer Bert Robinson and that tight Stax-style horn section of Reggie Allmon (tenor saxophone), Kenneth Cooper (trumpet) and Bill McFarland (trombone).
Son Seal’s enormous presence on Four Full Seasons Of Love – and the Midnight Son album in its entirety – raised his profile to greater heights. Even Rolling Stone magazine, not renowned for bending over backwards to review blues artists at that point in the 70s, described Midnight Son as “one of the most significant blues albums of the decade”. The goodwill lasted until the great man’s death in 2004, before which he was rarely off the road. (EM)